How to let go of emotional trauma
Accept what happened and let go; find the lessons and move on. That's the pat answer. But what if an experience cut you so deeply that it left you traumatized? What if that trauma re-shaped your life and how you see yourself? How do you free yourself so you can move on with your life, without it affecting you?
All traumas share certain things in common: it was unexpected, you were unprepared, and there was nothing you could do to prevent it from happening. It's how you experience the event that will determine the level of ongoing symptoms after the trauma.
When I was 17 I experienced what psychologists call a "Big Trauma" with my first love. Some friends thought what happened was no big deal and told me to "just get over it"...but the experience left me devastated. It was one of the defining moments of my life, and never again did I want to feel that pain.
Over the years I kept repressing the pain, not daring to look at it, which made it grow more ominous. The pain was like a virus in my operating system that worked in the background to sabotage me. It affected every area of my life in various ways and led to me making some self-destructive choices, which resulted in more emotional baggage.
"Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it." — Rumi
I carried that pain with me since 1987, and finally in 2014 the day came when I was ready to let go of the trauma. To accomplish that, I needed to do two things:
First, I needed to see what the experience had given me. What had I learned? What blessings were hidden inside that pain?
Second, I needed to face the pain. That meant to remember things I'd worked so hard to forget. No one wants to look at skeletons in the closet, but by seeing them in the light of day, these awful things are not as big or scary.
At the end of 2014 I spoke with him for the first time in over twenty years. For almost a year leading up to the call I had felt an urgency that grew stronger as the months passed. Something inside me needed to talk to him "before it was too late" so I would know what had happened, but I was afraid to call because back in the day I could never talk with him for more than a few minutes and didn't know why.
Finally I got up the courage to call, and I give him a lot of credit for handling it as well as he did. Then, about three minutes into the conversation I felt him pull away from me, emotionally, followed by the familiar sensation of the glass wall going up around me. This happened right before I went mute and my body froze up. The button had been pushed, and my response was to completely shut down. His response to my shutting down was the same as when we were teenagers: to express pain in some way. It was a pattern that had played out many times before, only this time I was paying attention. The call was over in less than seven minutes, but I finally had my answer. And he now had my email address...
I was surprised that our dynamic was still the same. It was as if nothing had changed in 30 years.
"The shock of any trauma, I think, changes your life. It's more acute in the beginning, and after a little time you settle back to what you were. However it leaves an indelible mark on your psyche." — Alex Lifeson
Through my research after that call, I learned that when a "Big Trauma" happens, sometimes the left and right hemispheres of the brain lose their connection when the emotions get overwhelmed. In my experience, it feels like a glass wall goes up around me, as I either move into the left or right brain hemisphere. I got stuck in the trauma because I was unable to grasp what had happened, and that's because we need both halves of the brain to understand a situation. The left brain helps us with logic, and the right hemisphere is where we get context. Without the brain functioning properly we can't understand a situation. And in my case, I also couldn't speak and my body froze because it didn't know whether to fight or flee.
Psychological trauma is very much about an action that was interrupted. The traumatized person needs to "complete" the trauma to release the feelings. But how was I to do that?
Surprisingly, he emailed me a few weeks after our call, so I took the opportunity to tell him what I'd been needing to say for almost 30 years but couldn't because of the trauma. I didn't blame him or call him names, but I did express how hurt I was. We were 17 when it happened, and to put things into context, I explained what was going on in my life back then and why I was angry. I shared my findings about the glass wall and told him that he had seen me in that traumatized state several times over the years.
I wrote pages and pages, laying all my cards on the table. After six months of writing letters, most of which went unanswered, I told him I was finished; we were finished. Then I walked away and made a clean break. After close to 30 years of feeling stuck, I needed to let go. In short, I created the ending of our story, myself, and this was how I released the past by "finishing" the trauma.
Despite how things played out all those years ago, I never once hated him. While I'm open to forging a friendship at this point in time, I still literally cannot be around him without shutting down. The only way I know to do that is if he were to help me disconnect the emotional trigger from the stimulus by creating new, happy memories. It would require time, empathy, and a healthy dose of patience.
"Relationships are eternal. The 'separation' is another chapter in the relationship. Often, letting go of the old form of the relationship becomes a lesson in pure love much deeper than any would have learned had the couple stayed together." — Marianne Williamson
It's taken me until recent years to understand that the trauma was not entirely because of what he did. What hurt me most is that I had deceived myself. Had I seen things clearly, I would not have gone down that path. My intuition had clearly warned me I would get hurt, but I ignored it.
Going against myself cost me dearly, and ironically, I have cruelly beaten myself up for it. Had I listened to my intuition, I would have spared myself 30 years of pain and self-torture.
To follow my intuition was my biggest lesson, and that is what I needed to see in order to forgive myself. I had already forgiven him many years ago.
Having forgiven myself, I can create from where I am now, not from my past. That's freedom!
"Abundance is a process of letting go; that which is empty can receive." — Bryant H. McGill
Feel the emotions to release them
We're taught to be in control, to be nice & good, and to not allow ourselves to have a "shadow" side, yet we need to face and feel the emotions in order to be able to release the pain. We need to be allowed to scream, rage, and roar like a maniac, if need be. And we need a safe way and a safe environment in which to do this.
Deal with the emotional stuff when it happens. Feel it all, even the bad stuff. (Just don't get carried away by it.)
Trust that deep down you have the ability to move through the emotional 'tantrum" and that fully experiencing these waves is actually healthy.